By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES and Indonesia have agreed to work together on crafting a code of conduct for the South China Sea amid tensions with China in the waterway, top diplomats from both countries said on Tuesday.

“On the South China Sea, Indonesia is ready to work together with all Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states, including the Philippines, to finalize the code of conduct as soon as possible,” Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno L.P. Marsudi told a news briefing in Makati City after the  first session of the two-day 7th Philippines-Indonesia Joint Commission for Bilateral Relations.

“This is an important step to ensure the South China Sea remains a sea of peace stability and prosperity,” she said.

At the end of last year, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement saying they were closely following recent tensions in the South China Sea and countries with claims over the waterway, vowing to push for peaceful solutions to the disputes.

“China and ASEAN countries, staying committed to properly managing differences through dialogue and consultation, have advanced practical maritime cooperation and jointly maintained overall stability in the South China Sea,” the Chinese Embassy in Manila told BusinessWorld in a Viber message.

“China speaks positively of the progress made in the consultations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, and hopes that all parties will maintain firm confidence, steer clear of disruptions… so as to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” it added.

In November last year, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. said he had approached neighbors such as Malaysia and Vietnam to discuss a code of conduct regarding the South China Sea, citing limited progress toward striking a broader regional pact with China.

The ASEAN and China have been in talks as far back as 2002 to craft the code of conduct, with both sides seeking to fast-track the measure.

“The current geopolitical challenges both within and beyond our region continue to have an impact on political security and economic interests,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo said at the same briefing.

“Our time-honored partnership (with Indonesia) has positively evolved in a way that enables us to address the many developments through the years… as well as the changing regional and global landscapes,” he said.

Tensions with the Philippines and China have worsened after the Chinese Coast Guard fired water cannons to block Manila’s attempt to deliver food and other supplies to troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre, a World War-era warship intentionally grounded to stake the Philippines’ claim on the waterway.

A United Nations-backed tribunal in 2016 said China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea has no legal basis, but Beijing has largely ignored the ruling and continued its island building activities.

Mr. Marcos earlier said he is eyeing a “paradigm shift” in the Philippines’ plan on dealing with China amid its vessels’ incursions and swarming of the South China Sea features closest to the Philippines.

He said Beijing has ignored traditional diplomatic avenues initiated by the Philippines, citing the need to coordinate with regional partners on a joint position on safeguarding the South China Sea from conflicts.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has said China was open to dialogue on the maritime dispute but urged the Philippines to stop its “provocations.” Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have claims over the South China Sea.

Ms. Marsudi said Indonesia is also committed to exploring more trade opportunities with the private and public sector in the Philippines.

“We welcome the enthusiasm of investors from both countries to strengthen the investment cooperation,” Indonesia’s top envoy said.

A delegation of trade officials from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is also visiting Manila this week to meet with their Philippine counterparts.

Meanwhile, Mr. Manalo told reporters on the sidelines of the briefing that he brought up negotiations for the pardon for Mary Jane Veloso during the dialogue.

Ms. Veloso is a Filipino overseas worker who has been on death row for more than a decade.

She had been arrested in 2010 for allegedly smuggling heroin into Indonesia and was sentenced to death in October that year before being granted a stay of execution in 2015.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo was also set to arrive in the Philippines on Tuesday evening to meet with Mr. Marcos on the next day to discuss ways to bolster diplomatic ties.